April 24, 2020 / Blog

Everything you wanted to know about being a new-grad Program Manager

Prelude: Today’s post was written by the incredible Dasani Madipalli, and provides an incredible insight into the day to day life as a Microsoft PM, as well as how to secure and ace an interview!

Every time I tell my friends and family that I’m a Program Manager at Microsoft it is met with a lot of confusion — “wait — you’re a manager? But didn’t you just graduate? Are you sure that’s your actual job? What do you do? So are you in IT?”

This has by far been the most requested article since I’ve started blogging. I constantly get questions through social media as well as in person about what it is like to be a Program Manager, how I became one and what skills helped me land the job.

So to avoid constantly repeating myself and reach a place where I can finally explain to people what I do — here is a long article with answers to everything you’ve ever wanted to know about being a Program Manager!

Me infront of the Microsoft Recruiting Building the first day of new-hire orientation

So What Does a Program Manager do?

As I mentioned, this has been the most requested article, but also the one I’ve been putting off writing the most too!

One of the reasons that I’ve been putting off writing this article is because the job description of a PM is pretty confusing. In fact, I really did not know what I was going to be doing until I started working a few months ago. Almost every PM I’ve met has done wildly different things. And to make things a little more interesting PMs do different things at different companies and in some places they are called Product Managers and in other places they are Project Managers and all the jobs descriptions are intertwined and jumbled up and can mean a whole lot of different things.

But regardless of what company you’re at and whether you’re a Product, Program, Project (or *insert P word*) Manager you’re essentially trying to come up with a solution for a problem that involves a bunch of people from different areas and implement it — ironically without the authority of a manager.

Because you don’t have the authority of a manager you need to do the work to get people on board. This means doing the research to figure out why we should solve a certain problem, how we should solve it and what resources we need to get things done.

And once you have people on board you need to make sure that every one is on the same page and gently guide the project through to completion and through release as well.

Doodle of me juggling

Once the project is done, the work isn’t really over. It may need a bug fix or an update or some more content to describe what it really does, and it’s your responsibility to figure out how to go about doing this. You might even need to talk to customers and go to conferences to spread the word about how awesome the project is and why people should use it — this is probably why you’ve noticed the PMs on your team get to travel a lot.

You’re probably thinking — that’s a lot of different things to do! It really is, and it’s also why the job description can get pretty confusing. Some PMs do all of the things I’ve mentioned, and some only do a part of those things. It really just depends on your company, team and work experience.

What does a typical day look like?

A typical day can vary a lot from PM to PM and from team to team. My day (in no particular order what so ever) involves the following tasks:

  • Maintaining Product Health: In my team we carve out time every day to make sure our product is healthy. This means making sure that all questions the support engineers have regarding the product are answered and all the logged bugs are triaged and sent in the right directions. Every team has some version of this to keep track of how they are doing and if they need to reduce gaps in terms of product knowledge.
  • Staying in Sync: A lot of meetings are setup to stay in sync with everything that’s going on — this involves staying in touch with progress developers are making for features your managing, learning about developments in the overall product and any other information you regularly need.
  • Meeting with Users: Staying in touch with your customers and end-users are an important part of the job. These meetings are to build relationships with your customers, as well as to get feedback on existing features or new features that are rolling-out.
  • Bringing Clarity: A huge part of the job is making sure a bunch of different people understand what is going on. This is done in a number of different ways: writing specs or documents to state what needs to be done, writing documentation, speaking at conferences and going to a bunch of different meetings.

You might be thinking — that seems like a lot of responsibility. It is, but it’s like any other job. You are not doing it alone and you will have a lot of help along the way!

Clock represented different parts of the day

Is Program Management the Right fit for me?

I really will not be able to tell you that — the best way to find out is by trying the role. Take an internship, shadow PMs around you and see if it’s something you’d like to do.

One easy way to find out if it’s something you’d like to do is to think about when you’ve worked on something in a group. Did you like being the person that brought everyone together, kept people on track, made a schedule, came up with a plan? If you liked doing any of those things you’ll likely enjoy the role.

How can I become a PM? What kind of Experience do I need?

There’s a lot of different ways to become a PM. If you have the opportunity to do so try to get an internship. If you’re already working full-time you can slowly transition into the role by doing more PM related tasks — I’m sure the PMs on your team will be more than happy to use your help.

Another great way to build experience for the job is to build a product, start a club or create literally anything with a team. It’ll help you get a better sense of the skills you might need.

Doodle of me building a clock

How do you ace the Program Manager Interview?

I have not done a lot of PM specific interviews but here are some resources that helped me prepare:

If you have a technical background it is pretty likely that a portal of your interview will resemble a technical interview. Here are my tips on acing your “Acing Your Technical Interview”.

Do you have to get a Masters Degree?

I added this question because this is one of the questions I get asked the most. A lot of people assume you need to do an MBA of sorts to become a PM. I don’t have a masters degree and I know PMs who’ve never even been to college.

Getting a degree just to get a job is probably the hardest and most expensive way to go about getting one.

Graduation Cap saying ‘My 105,000$ Hat’. Credit: SoFi

What skills are essential for the job?

There’s a lot of different skills that are important for the job. It is completely ok if you don’t have all of them but you will likely learn them through the job. Here’s a couple of skills I’ve noticed useful:

  • Communication: Being a good communicator is important for almost any job but particularly important if you’re a PM since you’ll have to communicate ideas and plans to a bunch of different groups
  • Time Management: There’s only so much you can fit into one day so making sure you have enough time to do everything that’s on your list and that you’re not biting off more than you can chew.
  • Prioritizing: This plays into time management — when you don’t have a lot of time but have a lot of different tasks figuring out what to prioritize and what to leave for another day ends up being a pretty important skill.
  • Asking Questions: As a PM you’ll have to learn a lot on the job, asking questions to learn as you go and to understand different perspectives is crucial to making sure you get the big picture.

Can introverts be Program Managers?

Absolutely! I’m an introvert and a lot of Program Managers I know are introverts too. Being an introvert or an extrovert have nothing to do with your abilities to do a certain kind of job.

It might mean that you’ll to do a little bit of extra work to get yourself to speak up in meetings, or speak at a conference but everyone has something their good at and something that they need to work on a little bit more.

If you like making plans, collaborating with a bunch of different people and learning new things you’ll probably make a great PM regardless of whether you are an extrovert or not.

Thought bubble: “The Power of Quiet”

What is the Best Part of the Job?

I love how interdisciplinary the job is. There’s so many different moving parts and so many different things you get to learn and your job gets to be different every day.

So there you have it — all the answers to all the questions you’ve ever had about my job. I hope that you found this helpful and pushes you forward onto your journey to be a PM.

Are you a PM and strongly disagree with everything I’ve written about this fascinating role? If you want to be a PM what fascinates you about the role? Any other burning questions that I’ve left unanswered?— Leave a comment below!

Dasani Madipalli is a Program Manager at Microsoft working on Dynamics for Supply Chain Management. She is really passionate about building community, technology, art and making opportunities accessible for everyone! She hopes that by decoding her experiences and things she’s learned she can make life a little easier for others in the same circumstances. Huge thank you to her for this article, and if you liked her illustrations or content follow her LinkedIn, Twitter or Instagram (@dasani_decoded).

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